Canada in the Cold War

Canada emerged from the Second World War as a world power, radically transforming a principally agricultural and rural dominion of a dying empire into a truly sovereign nation, with a market economy focused on a combination of resource extraction and refinement, heavy manufacturing, and high-technology research and development. As a consequence of supplying so much of the war effort for six long years, Canada’s military grew to an exceptional size: over a million service personnel, the world’s third largest surface fleet and fourth largest air force. Despite a draw-down at the end of the war, the Canadian military nonetheless executed Operation Muskox, a massive deployment across the Canadian Arctic designed in part to train for a ground and air war in the region. Canadians also assisted in humanitarian efforts, sending observers for the United Nations to India and Palestine in 1947 and 1948 as well as flying blockade running flights during the Berlin Airlift.

During these early years of the Cold War, Canada became established in its own right on the international stage but also fell in under the protective aegis of the post-war allies, namely France, Great Britain and the United States. The Canadian-American defence relationship is and has largely been one of mutual assistance in all continental defence matters though with different geo-political goals in terms of each nation’s foreign affairs. Under the post-war dominance of the Liberal Party of Canada, several prime ministers, including Mackenzie King, Louis St-Laurent, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau forged ahead on a path independent of NATO’s over-focus on large troop concentrations in Western Europe to instead supporting foreign intervention, peacekeeping, diplomacy and support to Non-aligned Nations.

Canada’s military history during the Cold War is characterized by a focus on international cooperation and foreign intervention with the UN as a ‘third way’ approach to maintaining the delicate international balance of power. Canada was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) in 1958 and played a central role in United Nations peacekeeping operations – from the Korean War to the creation of a permanent UN peacekeeping force during the Suez Crisis in 1956. Subsequent peacekeeping interventions occurred in the Congo (1960), Cyprus (1964), the Sinai (1973), Vietnam (with the International Control Commission), Golan Heights, Lebanon (1978), and Namibia (1989-1990).

Concomitantly the Canadian military maintained a standing presence in Western Europe as part of its NATO deployment – including long tenures at CFB Baden-Soellingen and CFB Lahr, in the Black Forest region of West Germany. Additional CF military facilities were maintained in Bermuda.

Throughout most of the Cold War Canada maintained nuclear weapons – including short-range ballistic missiles, nuclear depth bombs, nuclear-tipped air-to-air rockets, surface-to-air missiles and high-yield gravity bombs principally deployed in the Western European theatre of operations. Nuclear weapons were almost exclusively tactical in nature and were employed as part of a larger conventional military design, one which necessitated a standing army of nearly 100,000 personnel throughout most of the era.

Another key element of Canada’s military history during the Cold War was Unification, recommended in the bold 1964 Defence White Paper, and put into action in 1968. Unification formally ended the existence of the three separate military services, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, and reorganized the respective personnel and equipment into subordinate commands within a singular Canadian Armed Forces with the aim of streamlining the Canadian military into one all-service force akin to the United States Marine Corps.

Early Cold War

There was never any doubt early on as to which side Canada was on in the Cold War due to its location. On the domestic front, the Canadian state at all levels fought vehemently against what it characterized as communist subversion. Specifically, Canadian and business leaders opposed the advance of the labour movement on the grounds that it was a Bolshevik conspiracy during the interwar period. The peak moments of this effort were the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the anticommunist campaigns of the depression, including the stopping of the On-to-Ottawa Trek. The formal onset of the Cold War, usually pegged with the 1945 defection of a Soviet cipher clerk working in Ottawa, Igor Gouzenko, was therefore a continuation and extension of, rather than a departure from, Canadian anticommunist policies.

Canada was a founding member of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Canada was one of its most ardent supporters and pushed (largely unsuccessfully) to have it become an economic and cultural organization in addition to a military alliance.

PROFUNC was a Government of Canada top secret plan to identify and detain communist sympathizers during the height of the Cold War.[1]

The United States wished the Canadian government would go further, asking for a purging of trade unions, but Canada saw this as American hysteria, and left the purge of trade unions to the AFL-CIO. The American officials were especially concerned about the sailors on Great Lakes freight vessels, and, in 1951, Canada added them to those already screened by its secret anti-communist screening program. The Communist Party of Canada had not been outlawed since Section 98 was repealed in 1935.[citation needed]

Nonetheless, Canada was not immune to the anti-Communist hysteria that had afflicted the United States. On April 4, 1957, Canadian Ambassador to Egypt, E. Herbert Norman, leaped to his death from a Cairo building after the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security re-opened his case and publicly questioned his loyalty to Canada, despite his having been cleared several years earlier, first by the RCMP in 1950, then again by the Canadian Minister of External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, in 1952. Pearson, who was still External Affairs Minister, backed by outrage across the country, sent a note to the US Government, threatening to offer no more security information on Canadian citizens until it was guaranteed that this information would not slip beyond the Executive branch of the government.[citation needed]

The possibility of a security breach was raised again, this time in the House of Commons, with the Munsinger Affair in the 1960s.

Despite its comparatively moderate stance towards Communism, the Canadian state continued intensive surveillance of Communists and sharing of intelligence with the US. It played a middle power role in international affairs, and pursued diplomatic relations with Communist countries that the US had severed ties with, such as Cuba and China after their respective revolutions. Canada argued that rather than being soft on Communism, it was pursuing a strategy of “constructive engagement” whereby it sought to influence Communism through the course of its international relationships.


Further information: List of Canadian Peacekeeping Missions

It was during the Cold War period that Canada began to assert the international clout that went along with the reputation it had built on the international stage in World War I and World War II.

In the Korean War, the moderately sized contingent of volunteer soldiers from Canada made noteworthy contributions to the United Nations forces and served with distinction. Of particular note is the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry‘s contribution to the Battle of Kapyong.

Canada’s major Cold War contribution to international politics was made in the innovation and implementation of ‘Peacekeeping‘. Although a United Nations military force had been proposed and advocated for the preservation of peace vis a vis the U.N.’s mandate by Canada’s representatives Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his Secretary of State for External Affairs Louis St. Laurent at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in June 1945, it was not adopted at that time.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, the idea promoted by Canada in 1945 of a United Nations military force returned to the fore. The conflict involving Britain, France, Israel and Egypt quickly developed into a potential flashpoint between the emerging ‘superpowers‘ of the United States and the Soviet Union as the Soviets made intimations that they would militarily support Egypt’s cause. The Soviets went as far as to say they would be willing to use “all types of modern weapons of destruction” on London and Paris – an overt threat of nuclear attack. Canadian diplomat Lester B. Pearson re-introduced then Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent‘s UN military force concept in the form of an ‘Emergency Force’ that would intercede and divide the combatants, and form a buffer zone or ‘human shield’ between the opposing forces. Pearson’s United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) – the first peacekeeping force, was deployed to separate the combatants and a cease-fire and resolution was drawn up to end the hostilities.

Canada-U.S. tensions

See also: Canada–United States relations

To defend North America against a possible enemy attack, Canada and the United States began to work very closely together in the 1950s. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) created a joint air-defense system. In northern Canada, the Distant Early Warning Line (Dew Line) was established to give warning of Soviet bombers heading over the north pole. Great debate broke out while John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister as to whether Canada should accept U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory. Diefenbaker had already agreed to buy the BOMARC missile system from the Americans, which would be not as effective without nuclear warheads, but balked at permitting the weapons into Canada.

Canada also maintained diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba following the Cuban Revolution. Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the insistence on a much more placated policy towards the Cuban government had been a source of contention between the United States and Canada.[2] Prime Minister Diefenbaker firmly stood by his policy decision, insisting that this was the result of the rights of states to establish their own forms of government, rejection of current US interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine as well as Canada’s right to establish its own foreign policy.[2] Concern in the Canadian government was focused primarily on nuclear weapons, many politicians in the opposition and in power believed that as long as the US president retained absolute control of the nuclear weapons, Canadian forces could be ordered to undertake nuclear missions for the US without Canadian consent.[3] During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Canada was expected to fall in line with American foreign policy, in that Canada’s military forces were expected to go on immediate war alert status.[4] Diefenbaker however, refused to do so emphasizing the need for United Nations intervention.[4] It would only be after a tense phone call between President John F. Kennedy and Diefenbaker that Canada’s armed forces would begin preparations for “immediate enemy attack”.[4] Although the crisis would eventually be solved by diplomatic talks between Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy, nothing would loom larger over the Canadian state in the months following the crisis than the governing party’s disarray on the question of nuclear arms.[5]

In the 1963 Canadian election, Diefenbaker was replaced by the famed diplomat Lester B. Pearson, who accepted the warheads. Further tensions developed when Pearson criticized the American role in the Vietnam War in a speech he gave at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. See also Canada and the Vietnam War.

Canada also refused to join the Organization of American States, disliking the support and tolerance of the Cold War OAS for dictators. Under Pearson’s successor Pierre Trudeau, US-Canadian policies grew further apart. Trudeau removed nuclear weapons from Canadian soil, formally recognized the People’s Republic of China, established a personal friendship with Castro, and decreased the number of Canadian troops stationed at NATO bases in Europe.

End of the Cold War

Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan had a close relationship, but the 1980s also saw widespread protests against American testing of cruise missiles in Canada’s north.[citation needed]

When the Cold War ended, Canadian Forces were withdrawn from their NATO commitments in Germany, military spending was cut, and air raid sirens were removed across the country. The Diefenbunkers, Canada’s military-operated fallout shelters designed to ensure continuity of government, were decommissioned. In 1994, the last active United States military base in Canada, Naval Station Argentia Newfoundland, was decommissioned and the facility was turned over to the Government of Canada. The base was a storage facility for the Mk 101 Lulu and B57 nuclear bombs[6] and a key node in the US Navy‘s SOSUS network to detect Soviet nuclear submarines. Canada continues to participate in Cold War institutions such as NORAD and NATO, but they have been given new missions and priorities.

In addition, Canada may have played a small role in helping to bring about glasnost and perestroika. In the mid-1970s, Alexander Yakovlev was appointed as ambassador to Canada, remaining at that post for a decade. During this time, he and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau became close friends. Trudeau’s second son, Alexandre Trudeau, was given the Russian nickname “Sacha” after Yakovlev’s.

In the early 1980s, Yakovlev accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the time was the Soviet official in charge of agriculture, on his tour of Canada. The purpose of the visit was to tour Canadian farms and agricultural institutions in the hopes of taking lessons that could be applied in the Soviet Union; however, the two began, tentatively at first, to discuss the need for liberalisation in the Soviet Union. Yakovlev then returned to Moscow, and would eventually be called the “godfather of glasnost”,[7] the intellectual force behind Gorbachev’s reform program.

The Cold War in Canada came to an end during the period 1990–1995 as the traditional mission to contain Soviet expansion faded into the new realities of warfare. The Cold War required permanent foreign deployments to Western Europe, something which was no longer necessary, and as such bases closed down. Less equipment was needed, and so much was sold off, soon to be replaced by newer equipment designed for future conflicts. At home, bases were closed and operations consolidated and streamlined for maximum efficiency, as by the early 1990s many Canadians were openly questioning the necessity of large defence budgets.

In 1990, Canadian troops were deployed to assist provincial police in Québec in an effort to defuse tensions between Mohawk Warriors and the Sureté du Québec and local residents. In 1991 Canadian Forces personnel deployed in support of the American liberation of Kuwait. By 1992, Canadian peacekeepers were deployed to Cambodia, Croatia and Somalia. In 1993 Balkan involvement expanded into Bosnia and Canadian troops participated in some of the fiercest combat since the Korean War during Operation Medak Pocket.

By the end of the 1990s Canada would have a completely different military, one more inclined towards the rigours of peacekeeping and peace-making operations under multi-national coalitions. The country would be further involved in the Yugoslav Wars throughout the rest of the decade, would become involved in Haiti, and would further see action again in Zaire and East Timor. The Navy, by decade’s end (and prior to the modern post-9/11 era), was comparatively brand new, the Air Force well-balanced and modern as well. The Army began to acquire new equipment, such as the LAV-III, Bison APC and the Coyote Reconnaissance Vehicle as it transitioned to fighting irregular warfare instead of the large tank battles once feared would rage across Western Europe. It is with Canada’s late-Cold War and early-Peacekeeping Era military that Canada would embark on its deployment to Afghanistan, currently Canada’s longest-running war.




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Further reading

Further information: List of primary and secondary sources on the Cold War

  • Balawyder, Aloysius. In the Clutches of the Kremlin: Canadian-East European Relations, 1945-1962.Columbia University Press, 2000. 192 pp.

  • Cavell, Richard, ed. Love, Hate, and Fear in Canada’s Cold War U. of Toronto Press, 2004. 216 pp.

  • Adam Chapnick. The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations University of British Columbia Press, 2005. ISBN 0-7748-1247-8.

  • Clark-Jones, Melissa. A Staple State: Canadian Industrial Resources in Cold War. U. of Toronto Press, 1987. 260 pp.

  • Clearwater, John (1998), Canadian nuclear weapons: the untold story of Canada’s Cold War arsenal, Dundurn Press ISBN 1-55002-299-7

  • Cuff, R. D. and Granatstein, J. L. Canadian-American Relations in Wartime: From the Great War to the Cold War. Toronto: Hakkert, 1975. 205 pp.

  • Dewitt David and John Kirton. Canada as a Principal Power. Toronto: John Wiley 1983

  • Donaghy, Greg, ed. Canada and the Early Cold War, 1943-1957. Ottawa: Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Int. Trade, 1998. 255 pp.

  • Eayrs, James. In Defence of Canada. III: Peacemaking and Deterrence. U. of Toronto Press, 1972. 448 pp.

  • Farrell R. Barry. The Making of Canadian Foreign Policy. Scarborough: Prentice- Hall 1969

  • J. L. Granatstein David Stafford. Spy Wars: Espionage and Canada from Gouzenko to Glasnost (1991) (ISBN 1-55013-258-X)

  • Holmes John W. The Shaping of Peace: Canada and the Search for World Order, 1943-1957, 2 vols. University of Toronto Press 1979, 1982

  • Knight, Amy. How The Cold War Began. (2005) ISBN 0-7710-9577-5

  • Maloney, Sean M. Canada and UN Peacekeeping: Cold War by Other Means. St. Catharines, Ont.: Vanwell, 2002. 265 pp.

  • Matthews Robert O. and Cranford Pratt, eds. Human Rights in Canadian Foreign Policy. McGill-Queen’s University Press 1988

  • Nossal Kim Richard. The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy, 2nd edition. Prentice-Hall 1989

  • Reid Escott. Time of Fear and Hope: The Making of the North Atlantic Treaty, 1947-1949. McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

  • Sharnik, John. Inside the Cold War: An Oral History (1987) (ISBN 0-87795-866-1)

  • Smith, Denis. Diplomacy of Fear: Canada and the Cold War, 1941-1948.University of Toronto Press, 1988. 259 pp.

  • Tucker Michael. Canadian Foreign Policy: Contemporary Issues and Themes.McGraw-Hill Ryerson 1980.

  • Whitaker, Reg and Gary Marcuse. Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945-1957. (1994) ISBN 0-8020-5935-X 511pp

  • Whitaker, Reg and Hewitt, Steve. Canada and the Cold War. Toronto: Lorimer, (2003). 256 pp.

  • CBC Archive – Cold War Culture: The Nuclear Fear of the 1950s and 1960s


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